The Water Warriors take on the M.A.D. Challenge

The Water Warriors are on a mission. They want to change the way people think about and interact with their water resources. As Helen Huang, a sustainability expert and researcher with the team told us, “Drought and the water crisis is a defining issue of the century.”

Huang, along with her six teammates from New York City, are competing in the Makers Against Drought (M.A.D.) Challenge to develop an innovative solution to the water crisis in California using ARTIK.

We recently had the chance to speak with Huang and teammate Jesse Lee to learn about how the Water Warriors came up with their idea for this Challenge, and the progress that they have made so far.

Based on their research on the drought in California, it became clear to members of the team that agriculture is the biggest user of water, accounting for approximately 75-80% of all human water consumption in the state.

Above: Assembling water pipes.

“What better place to make an impact than to make efficiencies in agriculture?” said Huang. “We looked at irrigation systems and tried to find opportunities to save water and make efficiency improvements.”

In addition to the fact that agriculture is the largest user of water in the state, the team learned that much of the water being used is salty. As a result, farmers often need to over-water their fields in an attempt to flush out the salt. Yet over time, as the farmers continue to water their fields, the salt level actually builds up, which affects the quality of the soil, and reduces the yield of their crops, too.

The team considered ways to minimize the amount of salt coming from the water being used, and to even clean the irrigation water before it is used, through various desalinization methods. According to Lee, a mechanical engineer and software developer on the team, they looked at reverse osmosis, distillation, and electro-dialysis (ED) as methods to remove the salt from the water. The team picked ED for their project, since it would be the most cost effective and energy efficient.

“We wanted a solution that could be easily implemented on farms, which would be scalable and affordable, and would not require a lot of energy to run it,” said Huang.

So the team came up with EDDI, an Electro Dialysis Desalinator for Irrigation, that “separates salt from the water by passing a current through the water with plastic membranes in between it,” said Lee, adding that “salt is concentrated in one stream, and clean water in another.” They are using an ARTIK 10 to control the various pumps and valves, as well as to keep track of the salinity of the water and the flow of the water through the unit.

They have configured EDDI to process water at a rate of 20 liters per minute, which would be typical for an acre of farm land, but it would also be possible to scale up, if needed.

Above: Partially finished EDDI tester.

The Water Warriors have been working on their project for several months now, and have made significant progress. They have been keeping us apprised via Twitter, and recently shared pictures of work being done to build EDDI.

As a result of this project, the Water Warriors have a newfound appreciation for the potential of the Internet of Things.

“IoT changes the way people use the things that they normally use,” said Lee. “If you know your water is salty, desalinate it. Or, say you have data about your washer/dryer, you might use it in a way that is more efficient, or makes your clothes cleaner by knowing things that only the washer can tell you.”

Or, as Huang succinctly put it: “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” We couldn’t agree more.

All of the teams competing in the M.A.D. Challenge have until April 1 to submit their entries for judging. The grand prize winner will take home $100,000.